In December 2014, Roski’s MFA Program Director stepped down from her position, and was not replaced with another director... By the end of the Fall 2014 semester, we quickly came to understand that the MFA program we believed we would be attending was being pulled out from under our feet... we were told that we would now have to apply for, and compete with a larger pool of students for the same TAships promised to us during recruitment. We were presented with a different curriculum, one in which entire semesters would occur without studio visits... after four months, seven meetings that we held in good faith with the administration, and countless emails later, we have no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year; we have no idea what the curriculum would be... and finally, we have no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would.
What their statement only mentioned, but didn't dwell on, was the fact that cuts, changes, and "shrinkages" to the fine art programs were happening in parallel with a $70 million gift to the brand-new Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy at USC, a program center focused on connecting art with technology and business whose opaque, self-congratulatory tagline is "The Degree is in Disruption." In other words, there is plenty of money to be spent on making art-- the kind of art that can package new digital startups and help high-finance pros "unlock" their "creative potential." The resigning graduate cohort of the Roski School may have felt this as the unkindest cut of all.
However, my post today is less in response to the actions of the USC7 (and their supporters) and more to do with a strange dimension of the story's life online: comment threads. The threads attached to this particular story were much like comments you'd find on any story about art school (or indeed about graduate education in the humanities, full stop). Commenters were quick to refer to the aggrieved students as "special snowflakes" and took delight in mocking their aspirations. While many messages were supportive or at least curious about the circumstances, there was no shortage of taunts: a "bunch of crybabies," one comment reads. "Kids, you're not artists, you're former art students." Others suggested the seven should be "sent to Cuba... Boo who, who [sic]." And plenty of the remarks had to do with the supposed worthlessness of art school itself: "As for becoming an established artist, just get out there and do your thing."
I'm not one of those who thinks that the only good art is art produced via the framework of an MFA program. Troubling links between premiere MFA programs and the aggressively hypercapitalist art world call the codependent structure of art education and the art market into question. Likewise, a perceived de-skilling of fine arts programs has given some reason for doubt. But does criticism of the system's abuses necessitate a baby and bathwater solution? It's hard to say. Picasso attended a formal art school: Klimt and Schiele, Cassat, Ofili, Eakins, Neel. In the centuries before formal academies there were informal ones, apprenticeships, and other places to facilitate the training of artists-- a process that can take years, while the refinement of technique takes decades. (Of course, access to art training was historically reserved for privileged classes. In my eyes, that's another reason to open the academy wider, rather than shuttering it.) When quippy internet comments suggest aspiring artists simply "get out there and do their thing" and call for the devaluation or abolishment of formal fine art education, they are working from a narrow set of assumptions about what art is and how artists make it. Popular contemporary (Western) ideas about art stress the primacy of "expression," as if brushstrokes were always synonymous with emotional outpourings: they neglect to recognize that art can mean many different things to many different people, across time, geography, and culture. And the complex techniques of art do not always yield their secrets easily.
What these remarks also forget is that art schools don't exist solely to fill posh gallery walls for elite buyers. They are also the crucibles forging future art teachers, photographers, designers, people who visually enrich the world in thousands of diverse ways-- whether it's as simple as creating a watercolor in a doctor's office, or an after-school art club for children. Art school teaches problem solving, it stimulates an interest in materials and traditions, in cross-cultural and cross-generational dialogues. Not everyone who attends art school becomes a professional artist (full disclosure: I didn't!) but the tools we pick up there last a lifetime. Of course, even without an academic structure, people of all backgrounds and skill levels would still make art. Self-taught artists, and those trained in more traditional apprenticeship settings, would still produce beautiful things- just as they do today, outside the academy. But what would we forget? What would we lose, by closing those doors, de-funding those programs? How could we reinvent this system, or rework it, renew it, without sacrificing essential chains of knowledge between artists and art educators? How can we rejuvenate academic art training without turning it into the kind of commodified, sleekly corporate package that's emerging at USC and beyond?
I don't have all the answers. But I am certain that the value that comes with art school is not assigned only in dollars, nor are art students "snowflakes" who can't hack a "real job." They are tomorrow's creatives, developing urgently-needed skills: for the market, maybe, but also for the body politic, the community, and the soul.